Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production

Ukrainian Agencies Need Your Business, Now

London, UK
Illia Balaban, co-owner and CEO of WhoAreYou agency in Kyiv, tells LBB’s Alex Reeves how it has been working to help the world support Ukraine and explains the situation for agencies like theirs over four months into the war

For many of us watching aghast as Russian missiles began to fall on Ukraine in February 2022, finding what kind of support the country most needed was a key priority. Around the world people searched for the correct way to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Humanitarian online portals like StandWithUkraine became crucial tools to make sure money, resources and messages reached the right people and organisations.
Kyiv agency WhoAreYou was instrumental in building StandWithUkraine back at the start of the war. And the team there have been working tirelessly to maintain the portal and communicate the most important information to the rest of the world.

However, though Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to take lives across the country, agencies like WhoAreYou still need commercial projects to save the team and keep the lights on. The agency continues to flex its brand strategy, brand identity, creative ideas/design, and web development and design skills, but much of the work coming their way has dried up.

To understand the situation, LBB’s Alex Reeves spoke to co-owner and CEO of WhoAreYou, Illia Balaban.

LBB> Firstly, how are you? And what is the situation like for you in Kyiv in your day-to-day lives?

Illia> Air raid alerts are heard every day, and recently there have been several rocket hits in Kyiv. The whole team works remotely, part of the team in Kyiv is relatively safe, and part of the team is elsewhere in Europe. But we are in touch every day.

LBB> As an agency, how are you working to keep the lights on and support the people around you?

Illia> Our clients have suspended operations since February 24th, and we have lost all income. A few weeks later, we created a humanitarian project, StandWithUkraine, and joined other humanitarian projects as assistants.

And just two weeks later, I started knocking people from the advertising industry and business owners on LinkedIn to look for new contracts and support the agency. These responses and contracts are very few. Of the 800 emails sent, the response rate is 5%, and the percentage of real briefs is 0.5%.

Nevertheless, we have already managed to work with a Brazilian agency, a Lithuanian agency, with colleagues from Australia. But this, of course, does not cover pre-war salaries. They were cut by 80%. Now we are spending the agency's savings made before the war, but this reserve will soon be exhausted.

Occasionally we find small paid projects in Ukraine. But basically, we are looking for outsourcing projects abroad, in agencies to which we can be helpful. Thanks to your website and today's conversation, we hope that more of our foreign colleagues will pay attention to agencies from Ukraine, which now really need support.

LBB> In the beginning of the war, you worked to set up the StandWithUkraine portal - which has been so helpful for letting us in other countries know what we can do to help. How did that come about and how did you make it a reality?

Illia> Georgy Kurbanov, the owner of Svitsoft and co-owner of WhoAreYou, came up with the project idea. We are participating in this initiative together with the Svitsoft and Topdog agencies. Topdog handles the marketing and website development, while we took over creating communication videos that talk about the war and attract foreign investors.

In the first month, we created about 400 digital videos. We are constantly working on improving the content and the number of funds we support. The site has been rebranded, and now you can find the foundations of different directions, from humanitarian to military.

Also, the other day a manifesto video about the project StandWithUkraine took silver at KIAF (Kyiv International Advertising Festival) in the category 
'C. POSITIVE CHANGE / C3. POSITIVE CHANGE – #StandWithUkraine / C3-01. FILM'. For me, this is twice important since I acted as the video director.

LBB> The portal has become a really useful place where people from outside Ukraine who want to help can find guidance. Why do you think it's become so important?

Illia> We are working on developing this project so that the whole world knows how to help Ukraine officially. This is a place where only verified information is collected, and only foundations you can trust are mentioned. We are working to confirm all the data provided by the foundations. I think this is important for people who do not live in Ukraine and may come across different information on the Internet.

LBB> Apart from donating through the StandWithUkraine portal, what do Ukrainians like yourselves need most from people outside of the country now?

Illia> The international community already helps a lot. We feel this support every day, and we are incredibly grateful for it. It is amazing how ordinary people around the world can not only sympathise but also unite for real help to others.

The help needed is entirely different: material and non-material.

If someone is ready and able to work – they need work. If someone is in a more vulnerable state, for example, mothers with children who have fled abroad – moral support on the ground is essential for them. If someone has lost everything they need, money and basic necessities. Therefore, any help is significant: with money, projects, and a kind word.

Right now, we are working on another project – a series of documentaries, ‘The War Diary’, which tells how ordinary Ukrainians live during the war and how they fight their own battles, each at their level. You can already watch the first film in the series and support the project with a donation, which will help us complete the series of documentaries. 

LBB> What sort of projects should people bring to you so that you can keep your business going in defiance of the Russian invasion?

Illia> Before the war, we were a full-service communications agency, but since we understand that we cannot provide brand strategy or analytics services in a market that is foreign to us, now we work more like an execution squad.

We can create brand identity, digital design, production of 2D and 3D videos, and other understandable services.

Our strength also lies in the fact that we are a ready-made, well-coordinated team that can take on a particular task and completely close it.

LBB> Is there anything else you'd like to say to our readers in advertising around the world?

Illia> The most important thing we say in every call with our colleagues, in interviews or in private conversations, is that the war is not over. The battle is going on right now. Ukrainians are dying every day: military and civilians. You could see that recently there was a strike on a shopping centre in Kremenchug. There was also a strike on a residential complex in Kyiv. Such things happen daily, and we must not forget about the war or remove it from the agenda. If we turn away from reality, we will lose.

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